Identity Reduced to a Burka
A few years ago, someone from
the Feminist Majority Foundation called the Muslim Women's
League to ask if she could "borrow a burka" for a
photo shoot the organization was doing to draw attention to
the plight of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban. When
we told her that we didn't have one, and that none of our
Afghan friends did either, she expressed surprise, as if
she'd assumed that all Muslim women keep burkas in their
closets in case a militant Islamist comes to dinner. She
didn't seem to understand that her assumption was the
equivalent of assuming that every Latino has a Mexican
sombrero in their closet.
By LAILA AL-MARAYATI
and SEMEEN ISSA
LA Times Sunday Opinion, January 20, 2002
We don't mean to make light of the suffering of our sisters
in Afghanistan, but the burka was--and is--not their major
focus of concern. Their priorities are more basic, like
feeding their children, becoming literate and living free
from violence. Nevertheless, recent articles in the Western
media suggest the burka means everything to Muslim women,
because they routinely express bewilderment at the fact that
all Afghan women didn't cast off their burkas when the
Taliban was defeated. The Western press' obsession with the
dress of Muslim women is not surprising, however, since the
press tends to view Muslims, in general, simplistically.
Headlines in the mainstream media have reduced Muslim female
identity to an article of clothing--"the veil."
One is hard-pressed to find an article, book or film about
women in Islam that doesn't have "veil" in the
title: "Behind the Veil," "Beyond the
Veil," "At the Drop of a Veil" and more. The
use of the term borders on the absurd: Perhaps next will
come "What Color is Your Veil?" or "Rebel
Without a Veil" or "Whose Veil is it,
The word "veil" does not even have a universal
meaning. In some cultures, it refers to a face-covering
known as niqab; in others, to a simple head scarf, known as
hijab. Other manifestations of "the veil" include
all-encompassing outer garments like the ankle-length abaya
from the Persian Gulf states, the chador in Iran or the
burka in Afghanistan.
Like the differences in our clothing from one region to
another, Muslim women are diverse. Stereotypical assumptions
about Muslim women are as inaccurate as the assumption that
all American women are personified by the bikini-clad cast
of "Baywatch." Anyone who has spent time
interacting with Muslims knows that, despite numerous
obstacles, Muslim women are active, assertive and engaged in
society. In Qatar, women make up the majority of
graduate-school students. The Iranian parliament has more
women members than the U.S. Senate. Throughout the world,
many Muslim women are educated and professionally trained;
they participate in public debates, are often catalysts for
reform and champions for their own rights. At the same time,
there is no denying that in many Muslim countries, dress has
been used as a tool to wield power over women.
What doesn't penetrate Western consciousness, however, is
that forced uncovering is also a tool of oppression. During
the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran, wearing the
veil was prohibited. As an expression of their opposition to
his repressive regime, women who supported the 1979 Islamic
Revolution marched in the street clothed in chadors. Many of
them did not expect to have this "dress code"
institutionalized by those who led the revolution and then
took power in the new government.
In Turkey, the secular regime considers the head scarf a
symbol of extremist elements that want to overthrow the
government. Accordingly, women who wear any type of
head-covering are banned from public office, government jobs
and academia, including graduate school. Turkish women who
believe the head-covering is a religious obligation are
unfairly forced to give up public life or opportunities for
higher education and career advancement.
Dress should not bar Muslim women from exercising their
Islam-guaranteed rights, like the right to be educated, to
earn a living and to move about safely in society.
Unfortunately, some governments impose a strict dress code
along with other restrictions, like limiting education for
women, to appear "authentically Islamic." Such
laws, in fact, are inconsistent with Islam. Nevertheless,
these associations lead to the general perception that
"behind the veil" lurk other, more insidious
examples of the repression of women, and that wearing the
veil somehow causes the social ills that plague Muslim women
around the world.
Many Muslim men and women alike are subjugated by despotic,
dictatorial regimes. Their lot in life is worsened by
extreme poverty and illiteracy, two conditions that are not
caused by Islam but are sometimes exploited in the name of
religion. Helping Muslim women overcome their misery is a
major task. The reconstruction of Muslim Afghanistan will be
a test case for the Afghan people and for the international
community dedicated to making Afghan society work for
everyone. To some, Islam is the root cause of the problems
faced by women in Afghanistan. But what is truly at fault is
a misguided, narrow interpretation of Islam designed to
serve a rigid patriarchal system.
Traditional Muslim populations will be more receptive to
change that is based on Islamic principles of justice, as
expressed in the Koran, than they will be to change that
abandons religion altogether or confines it to private life.
Muslim scholars and leaders who emphasize Islamic principles
that support women's rights to education, health care,
marriage and divorce, equal pay for equal work and
participation in public life could fill the vacuum now
occupied by those who impose a vision of Islam that
infringes on the rights of women.
Given the opportunity, Muslim women, like women everywhere,
will become educated, pursue careers, strive to do what is
best for their families and contribute positively according
to their abilities. How they dress is irrelevant. It should
be obvious that the critical element Muslim women need is
freedom, especially the freedom to make choices that enable
them to be independent agents of positive change. Choosing
to dress modestly, including wearing a head scarf, should be
as respected as choosing not to cover. Accusations that
modestly dressed Muslim women are caving in to
male-dominated understandings of Islam neglect the reality
that most Muslim women who cover by choice do so out of
subservience to God, not to any human being.
The worth of a woman--any woman--should not be determined by
the length of her skirt, but by the dedication, knowledge
and skills she brings to the task at hand.
Semeen Issa, a schoolteacher in Arcadia, and Laila Al-Marayati,
a Los Angeles physician, are the president and spokesperson,
respectively, for the Muslim Women's League.